Monday, August 03, 2015

Adventure awaits in Bookstores, Alice by Christina Henry, Nursery Crimes by Ayelet Waldman and The Hanged Man by PN Elrod

I completely agree with Ms Komando. You just can't have an adventure with an e-book!
Radio host and Web entrepreneur Kim Komando, who bills herself as
"America's Digital Goddess," offered some unexpected advice to fans this
week in a post headlined "Find a great independent book store near you":

"Downloading books to read onto your e-reader, tablet or smartphone is
quick, easy and convenient. But there's one thing digital books lack:
the thrill of the hunt. How many times have you found yourself spending
hours in a great bookstore just looking at all the cool stuff? You might
not know what you're looking for, but since it's so easy to spend hours
browsing, there's not a doubt in my mind that there's something for

"Not only are independent bookstores lots of fun to look around, some
offer a quiet reading place where you can grab a cup of joe, and some
have hidden gems stored away on their shelves. So if you're in the
market for a good new book, or just want a new cool bookstore to check
out, try using the Indie Store Finder, brought to you by IndieBound.

"What are you waiting for? Adventure awaits!"

Alice by Christina Henry was a book given to me by Ace/Roc prior to publication as part of their "Roc Stars" program for bibliophiles.
I was somewhat skeptical when I received this book in the mail last week, mainly because the cover looks a bit gruesome, and also because, though it is labeled as "fantasy," it sounded much more like something that belonged in the horror genre. Many readers call this "dark" fantasy, and while that label covers a wide range of stories, from horrifying and bloody to merely creepy and gritty urban fantasy, I am not a fan of reading fiction that frightens me or sickens me with gore, pain and death.
That said, I started reading Alice at 10 am on Sunday and didn't put it down until I finished it at 3pm.
Brilliant prose and a lightening-fast plot serve to take this dark fantasy from a mere re-telling of Alice in Wonderland to a tale of redemption and triumph over the forces of darkness and despair.
Here's the blurb:
In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.
Alice escapes the asylum with Hatcher, a man who has also fallen prey to the various evil overlords of the old city (each named for a character in Alice in Wonderland, ie the Cheshire, the Rabbit, the Caterpillar and the Walrus), and is ready to get justice for the death of his wife and daughter as well as stop the biggest evil of all, the Jabberwocky. I was surprised at the theme of women's rights and self awareness that ran throughout the novel, because the women and girls are treated as slaves and prostitutes by the various bosses, degraded in every possible fashion until Alice and Hatcher come to confront each boss and pull back the curtain to reveal what lies beneath their vile treatment of women/girls. Alice learns that she has power, not just as a magician, but as a human being, to help other women escape abuse and to discover that she need not be afraid of these twisted and evil bosses, because they are nothing more than hideous, pathetic creatures who get exactly what is coming to them, each falling under the weight of their own madness and cruelty. Alice also learns that she is her own person, no one owns her but herself. "She heard a popping noise then, like something had broken in the space between them. Cheshire frowned. "That was not very fun of you at all, Alice. I've so enjoyed your adventures." "Yes, but they are MY adventures," Alice said. "And I think we will get along just fine without your assistance from now on." This surprising novel gets a well-deserved A, and a recommendation to those who enjoy classic fairy tales retold, dark fantasy and page-turning psychological tales of redemption.

Nursery Crimes by Ayelet Waldman was another surprise to me, as I have never liked Waldman (who is author Michael Chabon's spouse) or her bizarre political/social politics. But I decided to give this mom-solves-a-mystery novel a shot, and I was not disappointed, much to my chagrin.
Juliet Applebaum is a former public defense attorney who is a stay at home mom to toddler Ruby and pregnant with their second child, Issac. Her husband is a scriptwriter for schlock horror films and works from home, so he's able to help care for their daughter. Here's the Publisher's Weekly blurb:
Former federal prosecutor turned stay-at-home mom Waldman debuts with a humorous tale featuring a sleuth much like her creator. Juliet Applebaum gives up her job as a federal public defender to stay home with her small daughter, Ruby. Her screenwriter husband, Peter Wyeth, shares parenting duties. Juliet loves her family, but as she nears the end of her second pregnancy, she's restless, missing her job and worrying about her skills as a mother. Trouble starts when Juliet, Peter and Ruby attend an interview at the Heart's Song School, the most prestigious preschool in Los Angeles. The principal, Abigail Hathaway, doesn't seem impressed by either Ruby or her parents. Ruby doesn't get in--nor does the daughter of a temperamental and violent studio head, Bruce LeCrone. When Hathaway dies in a hit-and-run outside the school, Juliet immediately suspects LeCrone. But LeCrone turns out to have a solid alibi, so Juliet shifts the focus of her sub-rosa investigation to the victim's real-estate developer husband and rebellious daughter. Juliet's nosing around helps the police zero in on a suspect, but when she realizes that she's misinterpreted a crucial piece of evidence, she foolishly jeopardizes her own life, and that of her unborn child, to bring the killer to justice. Juliet's voice is strong and appealing, and the Hollywood satire is dead on, but in future outings perhaps Waldman can avoid putting an otherwise intelligent heroine into a cliched, vulnerable-female-in-peril denouement.
Though I didn't really find the ending cliched, per se, I did think that Juliet took way too many risks with herself while pregnant, and was somehow taken in by the actual killer when it was obvious that this person was seriously mentally messed up from the moment they are introduced to the reader. The prose is funny and warm, the plot swift and the characters believable. My only problem with the protagonist was one of size. She's obsessed with being "fat" though she's pregnant, and readers are reminded of how sexy "petite" people are, because of course the smaller the woman the more "perky" and "feisty" she can be, and therefore the more men in the novel adore tiny women because they are able to dominate them with their larger size. This plays out a lot in romance novels, where the lead female is always petite, blonde and "feisty" and the male protagonist always looms over her as a tall and muscular figure. Though Juliet isn't blonde, she's dark haired and Jewish, she still falls into the "little dynamo" archetype, which is seriously overused. There needs to be more larger women, women of color and LBGTQ sleuths out there in mystery novels. At any rate, I'd give this novel a B+ and recommend it to any new moms or stay at home moms who long for adventure.

The Hanged Man by PN Elrod is the first book in a new steampunk/mystery series called "Her Majesty's Psychic Service." I am a huge fan of the steampunk genre, and I always enjoy a well-told paranormal mystery, so I began this book with high hopes. It's a tad slow for the first 25 pages or so, but once it picks up steam (no pun intended) it swooshes along with all sorts of mayhem, murder and political intrigue. Here's the blurb:
On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned from her Baker Street lodgings to the scene of a questionable death. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed, after the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.
Turning to some choice allies--the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James--Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat. Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic.
Unfortunately, the whole "petite but feisty woman" trope is in full display here, with Alex, the protagonist, always commenting on her small stature, and of course this only serves to make all the men around her fall in love with her spunky little self. Ugh. Please, just once, give me a regular sized or even plus sized woman sleuth who can do the job at hand and not be handled like a doll (or a child) by all the big, strapping men surrounding her! Despite this, I still liked Alex, and I enjoyed her narrow escapes and her psychic ability to "read" the emotions of the dead and others in the rooms where someone's been murdered. Though her father is dead, and her family ridiculously set against her, Alex still manages to run an investigation during the Christmas holidays with panache and determination. It's hard not to run into serious spoilers by discussing more of the action, so I will give this book an A-, and recommend it to those who enjoy paranormal mysteries and steampunk books.

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